New owners invest to upgrade ex-Baptist Towers

Posted at 5:30 PM, Nov 28, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-28 17:30:12-05

COVINGTON, Ky. -- A new owner hopes that $1.5 million in renovations, better staff and an aggressive marketing campaign can make the former Baptist Towers home for senior citizens into a moneymaker.

The Covington landmark, a seven-story building visible from the cut in the hill on Interstate 71/75, was a money pit for its former owner, Baptist Life Communities. The Erlanger nonprofit sold the building for $3.1 million April 30 to Northern Kentucky Retirement Community LLC, a stand-alone company owned by Cincinnati health-care entrepreneur Ray Schneider.

“We’re thrilled. We think it has a lot of potential,” said Sam Cunningham, the home’s new executive director. “It has been an underachiever for a long time.”

Renovations already completed include a sign with the home’s new name, Ivy Knoll, on top of the building; a new canopy over the front entrance; and a new roof with solar panels that will generate much of the building’s electricity, Cunningham said. Other renovations planned include retrofitting all the light fixtures with energy-efficient lighting, and new heating and air conditioning systems for all the apartments and common areas.

Management doesn’t necessarily plan to add staff, but it does plan to upgrade the quality of staff, Cunningham said. For example, it hired Alex Lindenberger, a former assistant chef at Hyde Park Country Club, as Ivy Knoll’s head chef and food director.

The building will retain the basic floor plan of Baptist Towers, Cunningham said, with the top four floors divided into independent living apartments, the third floor for personal care suites, the second floor for common areas and the first floor for the lobby and management offices. The chapel, now the focal point of the second floor, will be moved into an enclosed room; its present space will be converted into a sitting area.

“We want to see the room used seven days a week rather than two days a week (when chapel services take place),” Cunningham said.

Another room will be equipped for video conferencing, so that residents may chat with loved ones all over the globe.

New director of marketing Carol Reinhardt has been making the rounds of local hospitals, making sure they know about the changes and can pass the information along to seniors who might want to live in Ivy Knoll.

The building can house 113 residents, Cunningham said, but as of last week had only 68. “We have our work cut out for us,” he said.

Baptist Life found that it could fill the building if it lowered the price of living there, but at that price the home didn’t make money, said Robert Long, its president and chief executive. “It was not working for us,” he said. “It lost a lot of money.”

The building originally housed St. John’s Nursing Home, which was the largest public nursing home in Kentucky in 1997, when state regulators forced it to close because of numerous violations of health-care regulations. It had a history of complaints about patient neglect, and visitors often complained about the smell.

In 1998, it was donated to Baptist Life, which paid $1.7 million for the rights to 123 beds, most of which went to a 100-bed nursing home Baptist Life built on the campus of its Baptist Village retirement community in Erlanger. Baptist Life also spent $5.2 million to renovate St. John’s from all skilled-care rooms to a mix of independent-living and personal-care rooms.

The building’s reputation worked against it, Long said, as well as the fact that it’s difficult to get to. If it were located just a bit further up the hill and had a Fort Wright address instead of at 800 Highland Ave. in Covington, he said, that also might have helped attract more residents.

In late 2013, Baptist Life decided to cut its losses and look for a buyer. Long hopes the new owners can “find a key to make it work that we couldn’t find,” he said.

Meanwhile, Baptist Life, which bills itself as the largest provider of senior services in Northern Kentucky, is moving forward with plans to move its anchor facility, Baptist Convalescent Center in Newport, to property it has purchased at the AA Highway and Ky. 709 in Alexandria. The nonprofit hopes that in the first quarter of next year it can sell the Newport building and also sell $46 million in bonds to finance construction of the new building.

The Newport building, a former orphanage with an excellent view of the Cincinnati skyline, is full, Long said, but management felt it was only a matter of time before it began declining. Residents were getting great care in a less-than-great building, Long said.

Baptist Life also owns Greisser Farm, a senior community on Ky. 18 west of Burlington in Boone County, which has 12 two-story villas for lease, about five of which are vacant.

The original plans were to build 80 villas, a 58-apartment assisted living facility and a 40-bed nursing home. Those plans are on hold, Long said, because of lack of demand. It’s a hard sell, he said, because most seniors want something closer to the city.

“Everyone is waiting to see what happens in Boone County,” he said.